What happens once the protestors go home?

This is part 4 of a 4-part series of conversations with activists from around the world.

Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Movement

Rich: I have been tracking these movements for five years now. They turn up, they learn something, they do something, people have an experience and then the moment expires. The progress goes underground where it can’t be seen.

So assuming the worst case scenario: Nuit Debout is going to do that next week, it’s going underground. The moment of consciousness is no longer on the public radar, then what would be the best outcome after that happens? For this network of people and their enthusiasm? How do you prevent that from being a defeat?

What I saw with Occupy Wall Street, was a golden moment that over time, as history is being written, history is constricting around what was a victory, and rewriting it as a defeat. That’s so discouraging for the participants!

If we can predict that is going to happen in France, what’s the resilient strategy against that enclosure?

Baki: Seriously I don’t know. I think for me, the only success, the outcomes are: to have people meeting everyday to talk about serious stuff, taking the time to discuss their problems in the most inclusive way possible. It is more inclusive than we could ever have imagined. I don’t say it is without flaws, there are many flaws, but this is the first outcome. From there, movements in France will never be the same again. As a long-term activist, I think this is the first outcome.

The second outcome, and this is the fight I have about digital, most of the people participating in this movement and in politics, most of the people ready to fight locally and engage, the outcome I wish for, is not a party in power. If there were a party called Nuit Debout in power, that would be a failure for me.

For me, my wish is a generation of people, in a party or not, that are ready to take the armor to come again in the streets, and say, “Now you stop this!” If we can build awareness, that is the best outcome.

What these people are doing, building Podemos France, is some stupidity. You take something that has happened in another country and try to replicate it. The guy who leading Podemos France is a political scientist. I’m like, guys, innovate!

Rich: I have a theory, looking at the individual level, not at the movement level: these movements are encouraging for people. If you think of encouragement, like taking someone and dipping them in a bath of courage, now you have courage soaking into you and you have been en-couraged. After the movement has passed, there are all kind of things that will dry you off and make you dis-couraged. So the question is, how do you maintain that encouragement and actually strengthen it over time, once the moment has passed? Once the historical forces have shifted?

What I’m seeing is that some individuals can do it. Individuals that have participated in movements 5 years ago, they’ve still got the courage. I think what it needs is to take that view of: what do I need to maintain my courage? I need a job that doesn’t discourage me. I need to live in a way that doesn’t discourage me. There’s a translation from the political action to the economic reality. How do I participate in this economy on my own terms? How do I turn this solidarity I feel in the movement, into food, shelter and clothing and all the stuff I need to be a human. I think that is the job for the movement.

Baki: I don’t have recipes, but I know if this movement continues in an inclusive way, the outcomes will be for generations. If this movement becomes a party, the outcomes will be diminished.

[…]

Rich: I’m doing what I always do: taking my experience and then projecting it onto the rest of the world. My experience at Occupy was amazing, change my life, but afterwards: then what?

I was forced to reckon with this question of how should I live now, having had that experience? What choice is left to me? The only choice left to me was to build a livelihood that was based on the same principles and values of the movement. I had enough friends that we have made that happen. So far. We haven’t taken a wage from anywhere else.

And we have met other people doing the same thing. So Loomio lives inside of Enspiral, which is 300 people. A network of people that is working according to those values, it operates democratically, working on projects that they think are making a positive contribution to the world.

Say you’re working in communications, you do a contract, get paid $10,000, then you choose some fraction of that to voluntarily share with the collective. Maybe 20% if it has been a good month, or 0% if you are broke. Anyone in the collective can propose how to spend the money. You get to allocate the contribution you’ve made. So you might say, ‘I love Rich’s project, I’ll give my $2k to fund his project.’

So internally we have this networked economy where people are earning a livelihood for themselves and supporting each other’s projects. Now we’ve reached a level where we’re starting to meet the other networks like us. There’s a little community in Germany, one in France, North America…

My experience of Occupy, which I wonder if it is similar to Nuit Debout, is that people in the movement have an allergy to business. As soon as you start talking business, they dismiss you as a capitalist. I want to short-circuit that. You can be in business without being a capitalist. I’m an anti-capitalist. We have an anti-capitalist business. Loomio lives in the commons. We take private money and use it to fund the development of the commons. I don’t have an ownership stake in Loomio, it lives in the commons. That’s a subtlety that you’re not necessarily going to get to in a General Assembly.

Baki: The outcomes are immediate. Maybe you would not have thought of Loomio if you didn’t participate. This is one of the biggest outcomes. If one day, out of this movement, people can make new tools, different companies, cooperatives, that is good! I would like that! For me, the worst thing that can happen is a party.

Rich: I agree. Have you heard of OuiShare Festival? It was an ambiguous event, but the conclusion was unambiguous, which was great. Yochai Benkler made this call to people in the room. He said, you people that want to start companies? Great, this is what I need you to design into these companies: they have to be ethically coherent, don’t delay your ethical commitment, build your ethics into your business model. Don’t make compromises on your ethics. Number two: they have to be for the commons, you have to build the commons into your business model as well. Number three: they have to be centered in social relationships. Not hierarchical. As Audrey said, not working for, but working with. He said, if you do those three things, build all the companies you want.

That’s the kind of directive I want to see come into the movements. Where people can say, we have a problem with the capitalist, but we don’t have a problem with work. We are happy to work. The problem is how we work.

Baki: I’m against jobs. But I’m for work.

You need to work with people who are there today. The movement is not there today. I don’t think it will be there soon. The movement is very particular, every day people come and some people leave. It’s good. The people who arrive today, they need to take the first step. For them, that is good, take the first step. That’s not a problem.

You have to try to organise this with people that are already there.

What is possible in France, culturally, is to prove by showing that things work. France is a country of speeches. We are not a country of actions. When you make actions, you can show people, what are you waiting for? If you succeed, we want to be in the storytelling. If you have this project, think of it in an incubator. Incubate it in the movement, and when it works, it goes out of the incubator.

Rich: This is the thing about social relationships, too. Since we started Loomio, every movement has used Loomio. We have social relationships with people in the movement. If you think there is something wrong in the code or in the implementation, if you think we are doing something sneaky, you have the leverage of this social relationship. You can say ‘Richard, why are you doing it this way?’ If I can’t win your trust as a human, directly, then it doesn’t take long for all the movements to stop using Loomio. So we maintain that accountability through a social mechanism.

Intergenerational culture change

Baki: My parents are from the ’68 generation. The richest generation in France. When they were my age they already had 5 children, a house, and saved money. I have no child, no money, and an apartment.

So 5 years ago I started couch surfing. One day, my parents stayed at my home while I was in Tunisia, during the revolution. They took the key from the doorman, and I told mum, there’s a girl coming from Brazil tomorrow, don’t give the keys to the doorman, the girl will meet you.

She says, ‘Oh you never presented her to us!’ I say, ‘Yeah, you can present yourself to her.’ She says, ‘But if she is your friend, you have to present her!’ I said, ‘I don’t know her.’

She was silent. What? You don’t know her? — No. — Why is she staying in your house? Have you ever met her? — No. — Do you want me to stay!? — No. — Are you going to leave her in your house alone? — Yes. — How is she going to manage to live in your house alone? — I sent her an email explaining how everything works. She’s a big girl. — Are you not afraid of things disappearing from the house? — I said, mum, like what? What is the thing in my house that can disappear.

The only things that have value is the crystal glass that I inherited from grandma. I use them everyday to drink bad wine with activists, we have broken already half of them.

I said, ‘Mum, do you think a young girl from Brazil that is making a European tour, will steal my glasses? To do what?’

Afterward my dad said, ‘the difference between your generation and ours is what you give value to.’

He reminded me, when I was young, I had a bicycle, and I had a friend that didn’t have one. One day I asked dad, next Christmas, I’d like Santa to bring me a bicycle. He said, you have one already. I said yes, but I have to give mine to someone else.

That bicycle was so cool, so he didn’t want me to give it to my friend. So he bought a new bike for my friend. So finally I gave my Christmas bicycle to someone else again!

I discussed with my dad, I have less money than they had, but I’ve visited 100 times more countries than them. First of all, I don’t care about goods. When I wanted to visit Spain the first time, I was 17 years old. My parents said I had to work to do that. I said No, I’m not going to work, I’m going to Spain. So I visited Spain for free. For them it was the craziest thing I could have done.

We’re in a generation, a social network with obligation in the beginning, and now it has become a strength. When I am in Madrid, I’m here, I’m not from Paris. And when I’m in Paris, I’m from Paris. It’s becoming an advantage.

In the social movement too. People I met in Tunisia, or Egypt… I met Toret, we’d never met before but we had so many stories in common. I was so happy to see him physically. We were instantly like very old friends. We’ve been working in the same movements without seeing each other. This is an advantage.

Emergence of digital nationhood

Rich: This has been the summary of my trip. This is my first time in Europe. We’ve been here a couple of weeks. It’s obvious at Nuit Debout especially. The ‘digital native’, the ‘global citizen’, that is literally a native, it’s actually a nation. Global citizens have active citizenship there. Citizenship and nationhood have culture, the culture is different from French or German culture, it’s nonlocal.

Some people in the movement have that culture, some people don’t. That’s the profound clash. The job of the movement, the reason you keep coming together, is because you’re trying to impart your culture from one person to the next.

We have all the technology, that’s great. But I think it still only happens one-to-one, face-to-face. I can hold it and I can pass it to you. And you can pass it on to someone else.

This thought developed into the talk I gave at the D-CENT conference two days later:

Baki: Yes! This is how we are solving it. For example. The media centre is not in Place de République. Why? Because we don’t want the police to take our computers. We need a good internet connection, and electricity.

The first criticism was: you are never there. You are hackers.

We started making a weekly meeting in the Place. People started coming, we started discussing. It’s going cool, more and more now.

Even in the media center, we are digital natives. In general, digital natives think the world outside digital is stupid.

Rich: That attitude makes you stupid. I’ve been dealing with the stupidest people, telling me how blockchain is going to fix every problem. You don’t know about code but I can tell you this much: the blockchain is a database. That’s all. A database is not going to fix power inequality. It will make new affordances, we can do things differently, but it doesn’t fix things by magic.

Baki: They asked me to give a lecture in a university in Paris about how Facebook made the revolution in Tunisia. I went to see the professor and said, I can’t make your lesson. Facebook did not make the revolution. Political scientists want to learn how Facebook caused the revolution. But it didn’t happen! So I couldn’t teach that class.

Sometimes we have to meet. On the other hand, you have to prepare the closing time of the meeting, because people will troll you. You need a bounded time.

I don’t believe there will be a new movement today, without digital. Even in Saudi Arabia.

Rich: My question is, if it is a new culture coming through, what’s the most effective transmission of that culture? I think it happens down a thousand channels.

I remember when I had my first experience of Google Docs, sitting next to my buddy, the two of us writing on one document. It shifted something in my brain: these words are not my own, these words are ours. It changed the way I relate to the job of writing. The same with Twitter. You have this experience where you say something and 5000 people repeat it. That shifts your identity. I want to know which are the tools that shifts people’s identity in a positive direction.

Baki: I think they are not only mass consumer tools. Also small tools, for example, during this movement, what shifted my mind, I’ve used all the tools, I’ve been in Tunisia, I’ve seen the crowd shouting in Spanish. You see how a global movement can work. But the day that I was surprised: one day was Orchestra Nuit Debout.

Musicians from Orchestra Nuit Debout hold their instruments aloft

I played classical drums for 9 years. When I started being an activist, saying that I played classical music was a secret. When this guy published in Facebook that we want to make a concert in Place de République, three hours later there were 300 musicians saying, yes we want to play with you and 12 conductors.

They really played! They played the new world. The second movement is very cold, normally played on piano. The chief conductor, who is a woman, decide to play this with violins and drums. But she decided that two hours before! When you come from classical music, you say, what is she doing? All these parts are played in piano, and you’re making us play it with violins and drums!?

It was so powerful!

There was too much noise to hear piano. My brain shifted. I thought classical music was one way, then a woman (and there are not many women conductors), can decide in two hours to make something cool. She did it! It shifted my mind. That’s no tech. One person with her experience, she said, we’re going to do it this way. We have electric pianos but you won’t hear them out here, but if we put all the violins and all the drums, because a piano is percussion! It’s hammer on strings! So she said, just go with that. Everyone was looking at her sideways, we’re going to do that? They tried, and they did it!

Rich: This is what happens when you put someone else in charge. They do things differently!


This is part 4 of a 4-part series of conversations with activists from around the world.

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